The Importance of Raising Boys to be Emotionally Healthy
By Sadira Sittampalam
While there is a lot of focus placed on how to make sure your child is physically healthy with things like sufficient exercise and a balanced diet, not enough focus is placed on your child’s mental health. This is especially true for boys as everything about how masculinity is portrayed is about being strong and tough and hiding your emotions as it is seen as weak. Therefore, it is up to parents to be able to raise boys in a way where they can healthily express their emotions.
But first, what is emotional health? Emotional health according to the Mental Health Foundation is “a positive state of wellbeing which enables an individual to be able to function in society and meet the demands of everyday life." However, in more simple terms emotional health refers to someone’s ability to be aware of, understand and manage their emotions throughout day-to-day life as well as through any type of crisis.
Emotional health is something that no one is inherently born with, and is something that develops as your brain grows. This begins very early on in life, with children slowly learning how to articulate how they are feeling. The challenge is how to teach them to express their feelings constructively.
For boys, it is often fed to them, not only from their parents but from various forms of media that they should repress certain emotions like sadness, and embrace things like strength or aggression. This often teaches them to deal with their emotions in a rather negative way. However, this is something that they do not have to simply abide by, and this is where good parenting comes into play.
Children learn a lot from their parents, copying their parents and their parents’ behaviours. Thus, as parents, the best way to teach is to teach by example, as children will essentially replicate both good and bad habits that you display.
One of the biggest things you can do is let your boys know that it is OK to cry. For example, if they are running around the house very fast, and you tell them to stop as they might slip and fall on something, but they keep going anyway and end up falling and crying - it might be easy to get mad at them and tell them ‘That’s what you get for not listening to me’ or ‘It didn’t hurt that bad’. However, this isn’t productive for either of you. Instead, you should express your feelings about the incident in a kind and gentle way, saying ‘I really didn’t want you to get hurt, that’s why I didn’t want you running’. Then you should ask them to share their feelings about the experience so they can explore why they are reacting in the way that they are. By putting words to complex feelings, young boys can understand more about what they are feeling, which is a huge step in learning how to regulate their emotions.
Moreover, while you can always encourage them to express their emotions, it doesn’t mean quite as much, if you are also never emotionally vulnerable with them. With so few emotionally healthy role models for men, since most men in the media are idealised for being cold and stoic, you as a parent must show a diverse range of emotions. This will allow them to accept emotions as a part of themselves, and not mistake it with something they should reject. Thus, if you as a parent (particularly dads) hide your emotions, your son will learn to do the same. However, by being open and letting them know you feel things like sadness, frustration, etc, while also showing them how you cope with it healthily, your kids will also follow suit.
This is also true of how you treat others, as if you experience negative emotions, and start yelling at someone out of anger, your son is also going to think that this behaviour is appropriate. Instead, if your children do see you mad and yell, they should also see you apologise for this behaviour in a meaningful way. Obviously, it is better to avoid yelling in general, but on the rare occasion it does happen, it should be dealt with productively.
As a parent, your view and opinion of gender roles will also come into play, as if you treat someone differently based on their gender, your kids will notice this too and form a similar opinion. This is why you should always treat your daughters the same as your sons.
Furthermore, if your son ever has an interest that is ‘girly’, you should never shout them down as this will only reinforce toxic masculinity ideals and outdated gender norms. They will likely end up getting called out for it by the rest of society anyway, so it is better to encourage them to pursue what they genuinely enjoy and talk to them about why some people may think it’s weird for him to be engaging in such an activity so that he is not put off of it simply because of what people may think.
You should also ensure that you are spending as much quality time with your children as possible. The word quality is important here, as even if you cannot spend a huge chunk of your day with them, an hour of dedicated playtime or interaction is better than four hours of interaction where you are distracted with your phone or laptop. Having dinner together is also a great idea as children who eat dinner with their families tend to develop better social skills as they get older, which they can use in other settings like school or work.
It is also important to be as involved as you can in your child’s schooling. The mistake most parents make is to only become involved when your child is doing badly, giving them a long lecture about how they should take their education more seriously. However, if you are simply present and involved in your child’s education, you send the message to them that their education is important. In the long run, you’d even be more able to notice whether your son is struggling in school and then be able to help them more effectively.
Finally, it is integral to your relationship with your son that you let them know that you are always there to talk. This is particularly important for fathers as being nurturing is something your sons need to see, and it is as simple as letting your children know that you are always there for them and that they can be open with you. Remember that you should also try and avoid ever shaming them or punishing them for being open about their issues, rather you should try and find a productive solution where their feelings can be properly discussed.
This helps tackle one of the most dangerous ideas in toxic masculinity; that it is weak to talk about your feelings or ask for help. Once they feel open about these things, they will be more likely to tell you if something is wrong, and they will do the same thing with other people in their lives, leading to emotionally healthy relationships and an emotionally healthy mind.